In the midst of Techweek’17, Alex Casey talks to The Next Billion’s Priti Ambani about shining a light on the women in tech.
We had only been talking for five minutes, but engineer and company co-founder Priti Ambani had already taken me on a journey into exponential technologies, big data and the future of work. Little did she know that I was sitting cross-legged on the other end of the phone in The Spinoff’s shower room, gnawing away on a soft, sweating candy cane I found in a box of last year’s office Christmas decorations.
Luckily, we found some common ground. The first is a mutual appreciation for the funny BBC interrupted interview (tech geniuses – they’re just like us!). The second is a burgeoning interest in preventing the world from being taken over by terrifying AI robots coded entirely by men. It’s possible she might be doing more to stop this than me.
As reported by PWC, only 3 percent of women select a career in technology as their first choice. Leadership positions are held by women just 5 percent of the time. Perhaps scarily of all, the rate of women graduating in computer science has dropped from 35 percent in 1985 to 18 percent in 2017.
Quitting her comfortable consultancy job to work with various internet start-ups and co-found her company for women called The Next Billion, Priti has committed to ensuring the tech world – aka our entire future – becomes representative of real world diversity, before it’s too late.
Appearing in Techweek’17’s Breaking Stereotypes panel, we delved into the world of tech and gender equality in the hopes that neither of us would be interrupted by a hilarious baby in a walkie thing.
First of all: can you tell me a bit more about The Next Billion? What does it do and how did it come about?
I co-founded The Next Billion about a year and a half ago called, which is all about empowering female-led businesses the world over. We try and open women up to opportunities, whether it’s access to mentors, access to finance or access to capabilities. We’re about strengthening the infrastructure in areas where female entrepreneurs operate. We want to give women in business a seat at the table. One of things we’ve done is organise a series of photoshoots where women get access to professional portraits. It’s simple stuff, but you come to realise how important that is for your confidence.
TNB is all about accessibility to inspirational role models, because the problem is that a lot of the role models seem really out of reach. The other problem is that not enough visiblity is given to the everyday women who are running meetings and businesses and doing awesome things. There’s a big media visibility gap, you know? There’s data that women are featured only 25 percent of the time compared to men when the topic of economy and business is in the media. That’s a big gap.
How was the tech industry represented to you growing up? Did it seem like a feasible career option as a young woman?
I grew up in Bombay, my dad’s an engineer and my mum’s a homemaker. Growing up, my dad wanted both my brother and me to be engineers. Everyone in my family was an engineer, and we were also raised with the mentality that we had to get good grades, and either go to medical school or engineering school.
My mum, even though she was a homemaker, was really supportive and pushed me to do my best. She was incredibly happy doing what she did, which was really important to me. So often you hear about women feeling stuck or like they have regrets. She was the kind of person who just wanted to stay home and have kids, which is exactly what she did.
That positivity and that certainty was passed on to me: to be the best in whatever I wanted to do. I never had any doubt that engineering was something I couldn’t do, it just became ingrained in me.
Was there a particular moment that you realised women might be treated differently or discriminated against in tech?
I saw a lot of women in the STEM subjects in college, but I noticed year after year that the ratio of women kept going down. More and more often, I found myself in rooms that were mostly male, and the women just kept disappearing. That was sad, it was like a pyramid. There were so many of us women starting out at the base, but it just continued to narrow down.
Why do you think that pattern happens?
The main thing is the lack of visibility. We need a spotlight. There are so many of us who are women, who are ethnic, who are doing amazing things in tech, but we’re kept at a very low profile. We need to highlight women so that they feel empowered to move ahead, but also to show the younger generation that there are engineers out there who look just like them. Because, at the moment, they aren’t seeing that. I feel that’s a major problem. Everyone’s always asking ‘where are all the women?’ We’re here! There’s a lot of us!
We also need to highlight all the different kinds of women there are as well, we need women we can relate to who look like us and have similar stories and cultures to us. Everyone always throws around Sheryl Sandberg but, you know what, an Indian girl or a Māori girl might not relate to her. That’s why I’m so excited to be on these super diverse panels Techweek panels – Frances Valentine really does walk the talk when it comes to diversity. Our first intake to Tech Futures Lab was 60 percent female and 40 percent non-white. We need to see more of that.
Here’s the crucial thing: when we design products and services, we need to have diverse input. So often you see these products that have had no design consultation from women, so they aren’t designed for literally half the population. It doesn’t make any sense.
Woah, can you give me some examples of products or services that have suffered from this?
There are so many. The one thing that immediately comes to mind is something like Alexa or Siri, these digital assistants that are all female. You have to think: why is that? From there, we can look at the case of AI, where artificial intelligence is feeding off everything you give it. If you are feeding a computer data and you have any unconscious bias, guess what? You are simply making another male computer. That’s why it’s more important today, than ever before, to create inclusive environments where all groups and genders are accounted for.
What are some common misconceptions around women in tech? Are the stereotypes changing?
I think it’s definitely changing. In the past we’ve had this whole “geeky girl” idea associated with women in tech. We really want people to know that you can be whatever you want and also be in tech – you can be fashion conscious and still be a geek. We used to see all these folks with very serious looking suits and ties and big glasses as “the scientists”, but we need to see that people on the complete opposite side of the spectrum can also be scientists and techies. That stereotype is lessening quite a bit now, folks from all over are realising that they can invent and create no matter who they are.
How do you personally deal with sexism and discrimination in your field of work?
My approach has always been to put myself out there no matter what, and try to own any conversation that I am a part of. In being a little more proactive, I’ve actually managed to avoid a lot of sexism and I’ve never, ever been mansplained to. I’ve also been very fortunate to work with and surround myself with people who have no bias, who understand that the best ideas can come from anywhere.
I made a decision to walked away from people who show even the slightest hint of bias. No matter how great the opportunity is, or the value that person can bring to my work, I don’t need that. I’ve chosen not to work with anyone who makes me uncomfortable in that sense and, as a result, my experience has been very positive. Just weed out the bad people.
What a great way to operate, but it sounds like a bit of a luxury as well, right?
Absolutely. I’d be the first person to say that I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had so many people give me their time and their help. I want to pay that forward to women and men, the idea that you need to lift other people up.
To finish up, what advice would you offer to young women considering a career in tech?
I couldn’t be a bigger champion for tech. I’m always slyly trying to ask parents if they’ve considered getting their daughters into tech, or ways to encourage them to stick with it. For some reason, there are lots of whip-smart young women who still don’t see engineering as an option for them.
That’s the other thing though, you don’t have to put yourself in a box straight away to have a career in tech. You can be a sociologist or a psychologist and still contribute to the tech industry in amazing ways. Explore different things, say yes more. Do that coding challenge, build that robot. Just say yes.
Techweek’17: a week of events bringing together New Zealand’s brightest technology and innovation talent to tackle global issues with local ingenuity. May 6-14, Nationwide. techweek.co.nz